Brain functioning of women is also governed by hormones, specifically testosterone and estrogen. In this journey into the female brain professor Michela Matteoli, head of the hospital’s Neuroscience Humanitas program and Director of the Institute of Neuroscience of the CNR, explains the relationship between hormones and the brain.


How female hormones are involved in brain functioning?

Female hormones control the development of the brain during prenatal development: they control the growth of neurites, or extensions of neurons; the process of formation of synapses, or contacts between neurons; the formation of melina, that is the sheath that covers the extensions of neurons and that facilitates the spread of electrical signal, and neuronal plasticity, the base of the learning process. In the brain, the amygdala and the hippocampus contain high levels of estrogen and progesterone receptors”.

Changes in hormone levels throughout a woman’s life are reflected on the functioning of the brain. An important change in the level of hormones occurs after giving birth when a considerable number of women complaining about the so-called postpartum depression.

Is there a link between postpartum depression, hormones and the brain?

After childbirth – answers the specialist – estrogen levels are reduced by 100-1000 times over a period of a few days. A study that examined the female brain after birth showed a sudden increase in levels of an enzyme (monoamine oxidase A-class – MAOA). This enzyme degrades certain neurotransmitters, which are the molecules that mediate the transfer of information from one neuron to another, including serotonin. As a result, the serotonin would then be degraded to a greater degree and it is known that a reduction in levels of serotonin is associated with depression. It is believed that the decrease in estrogen during the first postnatal week, triggers the sudden increase of the enzyme that could explain the depressed mood that most mothers experience at this time”.

What happens during your menstrual cycle?

“Many women complain about negative emotions, such as irritability, impulsivity, depressed mood, before the menstrual cycle. This condition was recently classified as a real pathological form called PMT or premenstrual dysphoric disorder. It is interesting that a neurotropic substance produced in our brain, BDNF is produced so altered during the premenstrual syndrome disforica. BDNF is a factor that is now clearly been associated to depression. No coincidence that antidepressant medications act by increasing levels of serotonin and those of BDNF,” concludes the professor.